Fowler stands by his 'beautiful lady'

Patuxent River 'wade-in' hits 21st year

June 09, 2008|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun reporter

BROOMES ISLAND - Bernie Fowler never gave up on the river he calls his "beautiful lady."

He believed in the Patuxent all through the 1960s, when effluent from sewage treatment plants began fouling the water, killing the crabs and the grasses that nurtured them. He fought for her in the 1970s, when a judge ruled that the state of Maryland and the federal government weren't doing enough to protect the river. And he was indefatigable throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when, as a state senator representing Calvert County, he introduced law after law aimed at curbing river pollution.

So Fowler wasn't about to let sweltering temperatures stop him from holding the 21st annual Patuxent River Wade-In, better known as the Annual Bernie Fowler Sneaker Test.

Every year, on the second Sunday in June, Fowler gathers a group of his close friends to a tent on this small peninsula south of Prince Frederick - friends that include O'Malley administration Cabinet secretaries, state senators and even the House of Representatives' majority leader. Arm in arm, pants rolled up to their knees, they wade into the water until Fowler can no longer see his feet.

To be sure, the test is unscientific. But the point is not the number so much as it is gathering people together and extracting promises from them that they'll do right by the river in the coming year, whether that means passing new environmental laws or using less fertilizer on their lawns.

"This simple test is profound not because of the science it brings to this endeavor but because it touches the brain, the heart and the soul," said Steny H. Hoyer, the majority leader of the House of Representatives and a longtime Fowler friend who attends the wade-in every year.

Dressed in red swimming trunks and a "Fowler Follower" T-shirt, Hoyer locked arms with Fowler, who was wearing his customary denim overalls and straw cowboy hat with an American flag sticking out of the top. On the other side of Fowler was state Sen. Roy P. Dyson. The three of them, Dyson noted, have been fighting to help the river for the better part of 40 years.

But even with all of their efforts, the 110-mile river continues to struggle.

This year's score of 26 inches was better than last year's 21, and just short of the 27 achieved in 2005 and 2006. But it's far short of the 42.5 achieved in 2002, the test's high-water mark earned after a year of drought.

Recently, a far more scientific test delivered the latest bit of bad news: The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's river report card graded the Patuxent a D-minus for 2007. The river tied with several smaller ones in the Annapolis area for the worst score.

In the past, Fowler and his colleagues railed against development in the upstream counties - Montgomery, Howard and Anne Arundel - which have added residents and new developments by the thousands in the past couple of decades. All that impervious surface creates runoff that gets into the river, carrying with it garbage, fertilizer, exhaust from cars and other pollutants.

But over the past few years, river advocates have been forced to acknowledge the problem is much closer to home.

From any direction, the drive to Broomes Island is peppered with squat shopping centers featuring the fast-food chains and supermarkets common in any suburb. On weekdays, Route 2 in Calvert County is jammed with cars and boats in either direction, as people commute south to the Patuxent Naval Air Station or north to Washington and Annapolis.

Dyson, who lobbied for stronger laws to protect Maryland's shoreline during the legislative session, said Southern Maryland need only look around to see the problems. He pointed across the river at a large waterfront home. "The fact that we can see it means they cleared all of that vegetation, all of those trees," he said.

Fowler's pastor at Trinity United Methodist came right from church - the only person at the event dressed head to toe in black, shirt buttoned all the way and collar still on. Charles Harrell said Fowler has inspired him to become more involved in river issues and engage his congregation in doing the same.

"Bernie's right. If we can't clean up the Patuxent, we don't stand a chance in the Chesapeake Bay," he said. "This is our river in Maryland. There really aren't that many that we can say that about, but we can say it about this one."

Fowler, who is in his 80s, urged the crowd not to give up on his beautiful lady. He might never see her return to the way she looked when he was a boy and could scoop up crabs in her high grasses. But he still loves her and says she deserves better.

"There's hope, and don't you lose yours because I haven't lost mine," Fowler told the crowd. "She's on death row. We put her there, but we're making strong appeals and we're going to get her back. She is not going to die."

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